By Karen Brooks
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) – As George Phenix shouldered his news camera in the throng of 50 reporters crowded noisily into the basement of the Dallas Police Department headquarters, he did not notice the man in a hat standing beside him.
Phenix, a cub reporter for local CBS TV affiliate KRLD, was focused on Lee Harvey Oswald, the man accused of assassinating President John F. Kennedy in Dallas just two days before.
Oswald appeared in the basement in what was supposed to be a jail transfer. The crowd surged forward and the man in the hat, Jack Ruby, sprang into motion, stepping in front of Phenix’s lens and firing a fatal handgun shot into Oswald.
Hours later, the 24-year-old Phenix, who had been working nonstop since the assassination, finally saw his film that showed he had captured a moment in history.
“I remember a gasp, and then it seemed like everybody exhaled at once,” Phenix, now 74 and retired in North Carolina, told Reuters in an interview as he recalled seeing the film back at the TV station after it was developed.
“It was just a sense of relief, so much, that I did have it.”
Phenix’s footage of the Oswald shooting is one of the enduring images returning to the airwaves for the 50th anniversary of the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination of Kennedy as he rode through Dallas in a motorcade. The shooting of Oswald, broadcast live on NBC, occurred on Nov. 24.
In 1964, a member of the Warren Commission, set up by President Lyndon Johnson to investigate the assassination of his predecessor, called Phenix’s footage “that famous film that catches Ruby moving forward and the wrestling.”
Filming over Ruby’s shoulder, Phenix caught a close-up of Oswald’s face the moment that Ruby rushed him, capturing an image that launched a raft of conspiracy theories.
“TV Anchor Dan Rather introduced my film as: ‘Watch Oswald’s eyes, watch the man in the hat move out. Did Oswald recognize the shooter?'” Phenix recalled.
Some theories hold that Oswald knew Ruby and that the killing was a hit to silence him. Others give little credence to the idea, saying Ruby, a police buff, wandered into the commotion by chance just minutes after wiring money to a stripper who worked in one of his nightclubs. The Warren Commission ruled that Oswald acted alone.
Versions of the film in full frame suggest Oswald was likely looking at a reporter who was yelling out a question, said Phenix, adding he has never believed in the conspiracies.
Phenix would stay at the KRLD job for only about a year. He went on to run Texas Representative Jake Pickle’s office before returning to journalism in Texas with a political newsletter and a string of weekly newspapers.
Until last year, Phenix had only viewed the footage twice – once when it was developed, and once when it was broadcast.
His own copy, which he had never bothered to look at because he did not want to rent a commercial projector, had been destroyed by his children, who thought it was a yo-yo and later ran over the film on their tricycles.
The events of those days in Dallas still rest heavily in the mind of the former cameraman, including images he filmed of Jacqueline Kennedy emerging from Parkland Hospital covered in her husband’s blood.
“I’m so surprised that I didn’t start crying this time,” he said. “I usually do. It was just such a tragedy.”
(Reporting by Karen Brooks; Editing by Jon Herskovitz and Peter Cooney)